Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alaric DeArment grew up in Washington and Oregon, spent three years in China and went to college in Indiana. He now works as a journalist in New York.
Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a resounding success. Responding to Mike Huckabee's call to patronize the chain and show support for the anti-gay stances of the company and its president, Dan Cathy, countless people braved sticky summer heat and formed lines that went around entire blocks for fatty, greasy, God-fearing junk food. News of the successful stunt sent the religious right's spirits jumping higher and faster than those thousands of customers' risk of cardiovascular disease.
It's enough to give LGBT people pause. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day wasn't a bunch of people standing up for Cathy's right to free speech as mayors of several major cities threatened to drive the chain away. It was a mass endorsement of his views, and the staggering numbers of people who showed up is strong evidence that for all the progress we've made, a lot of the country still despises us. And for that, we should be even happier than the religious right.
For one, it's a classic example of pride before a fall. As a business journalist, I can say with some expertise that when a supplier abruptly cancels a contract with a retailer, as the Jim Henson Co. did with Chick-fil-A, it's not a good omen. It doesn't just reflect a principled stand on the part of the supplier - it means the supplier's executives had an emergency meeting and determined that continuing the relationship would be bad for their bottom line, and the company can afford to lose the retailer's business. And the throngs of people who showed up mostly have lives and can't eat there every day, so don't be surprised if after a while the chain's more than 1,600 restaurants start looking a little emptier than before.
But more importantly, the whole spectacle recalls another restaurant chain known for its poultry-based menu: the Coon Chicken Inn. Founded in Salt Lake City in 1925 and later expanded to Seattle and Portland, Ore., the three-restaurant chain is one of the best known examples of the once common use of racist imagery in advertising, and though the Portland and Seattle locations closed in the late 1940s, the Salt Lake City restaurant operated until 1957. Diners entered through a doorway shaped like a smiling blackface cartoon head and ordered from similarly designed menus, while the company promoted itself with souvenirs like matchboxes and spare tire covers. For its time, it was a clever marketing gimmick, but outrage and the threat of a lawsuit from African-American groups forced the Seattle restaurant to dramatically tone down the racist imagery. By literally putting a face on bigotry, it galvanized opposition to itself.
These days, such uses of racist imagery are rarely attempted and generally frowned upon, Native American-caricaturing sports teams and Asian-ridiculing frat boy clothing outlets notwithstanding. It doesn't mean racism is gone - it's just been driven underground - which brings me to why we should be so happy about the turnout for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
Americans like their bigotry the way they like their Chinese food: drenched in so much diabetes-inducingly sweet sauce that it becomes a culinary species all its own, resembling the real thing, but not too unadulterated for their fragile palates. That's why news media shun the Westboro Baptist Church, with its "God Hates Fags" signs and calls for our extermination, but eagerly seek opinions on LGBT-related matters from the Family Research Council, which uses nicer-sounding language to express pretty much the same things. Homophobia is acceptable as long as it possesses a veneer of civility.
Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day has torn that away, showing the world the lengths to which our opponents will go to proudly display their hatred for us. It lays bare the "God Hates Fags" picket sign at the heart of every ostensibly civil and principled argument for why LGBT people deserve permanent second-class citizenship. Just think: all those people, willing to set aside hours of precious time and stand in the hot sun, just to show us filthy homos how worthless, low and disgusting we are to them.
It's hard not to see the ghost of the Coon Chicken Inn in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. It's a display of privilege, arrogance and spite so blatant as to border on self-parody. Photos of local events in the newspaper may show the multitudes of dowdy bigots smiling, but their descendants will only feel embarrassment at their benighted forebears chomping on waffle fries at the Fag Chicken Inn.